A standing-room-only crowd gathered in the Vandervort Room on Thursday evening to hear the powerful President’s Forum address of Rev. Harold Middlebrook, a civil rights activist and friend of Dr. Martin King Luther, Jr. In a week commemorating the immeasurable impression King made on the country and the world, Middlebrook enlivened the HWS and Geneva communities with an exploration of King as a man and the message that was even greater than him.
“This is an important time of year, when we reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” remarked President Mark D. Gearan. “It is an immense privilege to hear from a contemporary of Dr. King, who was on the journey alongside him until his last day.”
“This is a significant week every year – I really wish it did not end with one week,” Middlebrook began. “It is significant because the whole nation turns its attention to the celebration of the life and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
Middlebrook expressed his gratitude to the Colleges, which was the only non-historically black institution to strongly support the King Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial to King is not a monument, said Middlebrook, but a reminder of all of those who gave themselves to the cause. It is not stone, but a living and moving tribute to a man who struggled and fought against injustice, a man who overcame, he said.
Middlebrook believes that King’s greatness is no accident, but an instance of divine intervention. “It was no accident that Martin Luther King Jr. came on the scene when he did,” said Middlebrook. “He was born in the height of segregation and discrimination; he was born in a time when, if you were of a dark complexion, you were not expected to be anybody or anything.”
Over the course of his talk, Middlebrook laid out a vibrant tableau of King’s life and work, of how he became the figure for the Civil Rights Movement and how he taught others that love and non-violence were the answers to injustice.
While a student at Morehouse College, King was fastidious, reading everything he could. “He began to develop and to understand commitment to a cause and a service,” remarked Middlebrook. “He learned that there is a constant struggle that life is all about. You never rest when you reach one level, because there are always other levels – other mountains to climb, other challenges that must be met.”
When King finally came to his position as pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, he began to understand that you have to practice love – even when people prove difficult to love. Middlebrook spoke about the simple message that King preached from his pulpit each Sunday: reconciliation. “He said that we have to learn to come together – not for our own personal gain, but for the good of mankind. We have to learn how to love each other. “
Middlebrook spoke of how King learned how to cope with hatred, not from a place of aggression or violence, but of peace and love. “Non-violence is not weakness – it is strong in the face of opposition,” Middlebrook asserted, recalling the actions of King. “Love and non-violence says to those who inflict suffering upon you: I will overcome by being able to endure the suffering that you inflict.”
Perhaps King’s greatest message and vision was that of a community where all people are equal. “He said, I do not see you as objects to further my own cause,” said Middlebrook. “I see you as equals – as brothers and sisters – so that as we strive together in this nation, we can take our jangly discordance and turn it into a symphony of hope and harmony where all of God’s children realize they are somebody.”
Most importantly, said Middlebrook, King’s message was to redeem the soul of America. “When he said, ‘I have a dream,’ it was not only his dream, but it became the dream of thousands across the nation. It became the dream of those who said: ‘We shall overcome.'”
When he recalled King’s final day on Earth, the final moments in April 1968 when King stood on a balcony in Tennessee, Middlebrook remembered the shock and sadness of the gunshot. However, stronger is his recollection of how the message rang even louder in those who witnessed King’s last breath. “Somehow the message just resonated within us,” said Middlebrook. “It’s not about me – it’s not about you individually. If you do not find a cause worth dying for, you have not found a cause worth living for. And he does live.”